Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, was among the original TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know it) novels. It was written in 1959 about 1959. It was a time of national prosperity, racial segregation, and during the peak of the Cold War. A time of peace, but when people lived daily with the threat of global nuclear war looming.
Then it actually happens, with almost no warning, the Soviets launch a preemptive full-scale nuclear strike against the United States and its allies. To the survivors, including the people in the small Central Florida town of Fort Repose, it was just known as “The Day.” The day when everything that was and everything they knew, changed forever.
Our protagonist, Randy Bragg, is the scion of a once prominent local family. Before, he was living a quiet life with very little purpose. After, he struggles to find his role as he becomes responsible for his brother’s family, then the neighbors – both white and “colored”, and ultimately the town. Randy has a couple of days warning (from his high-ranking military brother) and tries to stock up on extra supplies. It was insightful to see what he thought was important and what he didn’t get. He also tries to warn some close friends, but the response he receives, “So here comes our local Paul Revere . . . What are you trying to do, frighten my wife and daughter to death?”, would probably be similar to the denial we’d see from family and friends.
For me, with my medical background, it was very interesting to read about Dr. Dan Gunn, the town’s only medical provider. About his initial struggles to take care of so many people, most of whom are still in denial. His knowledge that he has so little equipment and supplies and that once they’re gone, they’re gone. How he, the caregiver, pushes himself to almost complete physical collapse. And watching his naivety about his own safety, until he’s targeted for the drugs and supplies he might have.
As resources become scarce, cash becomes valueless. Even early on when it was still accepted for payment, stores quickly sold out and nothing new arrived. People barter for what they need; food, gasoline, ammunition, alcohol, precious metals, and even coffee become currency.
When the initial food stockpile is depleted, they struggle to produce their own. Randy laments, “The end of the corn and exhaustion of the citrus crop had been inevitable. Armadillos in the yams was bad luck, but bearable. But without fish and salt their survival was in doubt.” Some of their needs were obvious, of course they had to quickly locate a sustainable source of drinking water. But no one thought of what would happen when they ran out of salt, and the dire consequences. They had to provide their own security, not only against humans but also animals. They were creative how they rationed energy–fuel and batteries–and how they reacted when it finally, inevitably, ran out.
This book illustrated that mental and physical preparation are what are necessary to endure. Randy sums things up, “Survival of the fittest . . . The strong [and prepared] survive. The frail die. The exotic fish die because the aquarium isn’t heated. The common guppy lives. So does the tough catfish. . . . That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.”